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NFL AM: Camp Position Battles Put Vets On The Bubble

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The turn of the calendar to July means we are less than a month away from training camp and all of the drama and chaos that comes with daily camp battles for jobs.

While many of the headlines over those weeks will be devoted to competition at the quarterback position at the camps of the Broncos, 49ers, Eagles and Browns, QBs are far from the only players who will be fighting for their spots by the end of the month.

There’s also the matter of finding spots for the new rookie class and often that comes at the expense of veteran players with more service time and higher salaries. Once they drop their job to a rookie, those high-salaried vets get pushed from a starting job to the roster bubble, in danger of being cut altogether. It’s all part of the NFL’s Circle of Life, but it makes this time of year especially tricky for some of the older players in the league.

Here’s a look at some camp battles to look forward to, and what veterans could find themselves losing their jobs to rookies this summer.

Cowboys running back: Darren McFadden vs. Alfred Morris vs. Ezekiel Elliott 

When the Dallas Cowboys signed oft-injured veteran running back Darren McFadden last offseason to help replace the DeMarco Murray, it was a moved that drew some chuckles from around the league. McFadden had a well-earned reputation as one of the league’s most injury prone players and it was hard to belief the Cowboys were putting any faith in him to produce on a consistent basis.

But that’s exactly what McFadden did, playing in all 16 games and picking up the reins for the running game after incumbent Joseph Randle got himself essentially kicked off the team. Running behind the vaunted Dallas offensive line, McFadden finished with just his second career 1,000-yard season and averaged a solid 4.6 yards per carry.

However, despite that production, the Cowboys made some big moves this offseason that could send McFadden packing by the time training camp is over. The first of those was the signing of fellow veteran running back Alfred Morris away from the Washington Redskins. Morris is younger than McFadden, has a little less tread on his tires and has experience running behind the blocking scheme Dallas likes to run, something the team had to alter last season when McFadden took over as the full time running back.

Morris’ presence alone put McFadden on shaky ground. But then the Cowboys went out and took Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Using that kind of draft capital on a running back is a clear signal of the intention to hand that rookie the keys to the castle and expectations are already through the roof for Elliott as his first training camp with the Cowboys approaches.

But what does it mean for McFadden, and Morris for that matter? Well, barring something unforeseen, Elliott should top the depth chart come September and it seems unlikely the the Cowboys carry both veterans into the season unless an injury occurs. So that means McFadden, who will be working his way back from an offseason elbow injury that forced him to miss OTA and minicamp, and Morris will be fighting for their spots all summer long. The bet here is that Morris sticks and McFadden is shown the door, but if Run DMC can prove he can be an effective complement to Zeke, perhaps he can stick around.

Jaguars cornerback: Davon House vs. Prince Amukamara vs. Aaron Colvin vs. Jalen Ramsey.

Over the last two offseasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have done a complete overhaul of their secondary, forming one of the deepest and possibly most talented defensive backfields in the league. No longer is the team forced to start the likes of Alan Ball, Dwayne Gratz, Derek Cox and other castoffs and also-rans.

The makeover started last offseason when the team signed underrated corner Davon House away from the Green Bay Packers on a lucrative deal. House went on to meet and perhaps exceed the expectations that came with his new contract, finishing with four interceptions and 23 pass defensed, a team record that ranked him third in the league for the season. He seemed to solidify himself as a staple starter in Jacksonville

But this offseason, the Jags went out and made some big moves to add to the secondary. First they signed former Giants first round pick Prince Amukamara to a one-year deal at a bargain price as Amukamara aims to prove he’s no first round bust. Then Jacksonville was in the right place at the right time to get arguably the best player in the draft, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who should slot right into the starting lineup. The Jags are also high on 2014 fourth round pick Aaron Colvin, who started 15 games at corner last season.

Jacksonville is expected to have an open competition for the starting spots, but it would be a shock if Ramsey, who is recovering from minor knee surgery but is expected to be ready by the time the season rolls around, is not in the starting lineup. Colvin likely finds a spot in the slot, leaving a battle for the No. 2 cornerback spot between House and Amukamara.

The Jags are committed to House for three more years while Amukamara was inked to just a one-year deal. But if Amukamara shows the talent that made him a first round pick in a system that’s far better suited to showcase his skills than the one in New York, what becomes of House? Would the Jags really put one of their more highly paid players in the No. 4 cornerback slot, or would they look to trade him for some savings?

Jacksonville is one of the up-and-coming teams in the league and their defense should be worlds better this season, making this camp battle one worth monitoring.

Bengals cornerbacks: Adam Jones vs. Dre Kirkpatrick vs. Darqueze Dennard vs. William Jackson III

The Jaguars aren’t the only potential AFC contender dealing from a surplus of talent at the cornerback position. The Cincinnati Bengals currently employ four former first round picks at the position as they head into camp, making an obvious battle for playing time.

The incumbents are 10-year veteran Adam Jones, who signed a three-year, $22 million deal with the team this offseason and 2012 first rounder Dre Kirkpatrick, who finally made his way into the starting lineup just last season. Behind them are two of the team’s last three first round picks: Darqueze Dennard, who was taken 24th overall in 2014 and William Jackson III, who went 24th overall this year.

Dennard had a strong season despite making just one start and seems to be pushing his way into the rotation. As he enters year three of his career, the Michigan State product has something to prove. Meanwhile Jackson was considered by some as the best cornerback prospect in the class this season and is a guy that could contribute immediately if given the opportunity. But that chance would have to come at the expense of a veteran.

The new deal signed by Jones would seem to secure his spot at the top of the depth chart, but there is the matter of his troubled past with on and off the field issues, which came bubbling back to the surface last January when he nearly helped incite a brawl during a playoff game against the Steelers. Despite his contract, Jones could be on thin ice with the league, complicating his roster spot.

Then there’s Kirkpatrick, who enters his contract year coming off his first full season as a starter, and one where he did not log an interception. The Bengals like what they have in Kirkpatrick, but if he doesn’t show up strong in training camp, he could get pushed to the bubble by the numbers game and the fact that the team now has Dennard and Jackson ready to take on bigger roles. If one or both of those two young corners take the reins, Kirkpatrick could be a trade or cut candidate by the end of camp.

Washington Redskins wide receivers: DeSean Jackson vs. Pierre Garcon vs. Josh Doctson

The Washington Redskins got one of the true coups in the first round of the draft when wide receiver Josh Doctson fell into their laps at 22nd overall. The TCU standout was arguably the best wideout in the draft this year and should fit right in to a big role in the Washington passing attack.

However, that role would have to come at the expense of one of the Redskins incumbents. The top two spots on the team’s depth chart at receiver currently belong to DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, two players who have proven in the past to be quite productive when healthy. But for Jackson in particular, that wasn’t the case at all in 2015.

The two-time Pro Bowler played in just 10 games and caught 30 passes for 528 yards, both career lows. Now Jackson is out to prove, in the final year of his contract, the he hasn’t entered the decline phase of his career.

While Jackson struggled in 2015, Garcon was solid, but also not as strong as the Redskins have known him to be in the recent past. He was second on the team in catches to tight end Jordan Reed, but his 72 catches and 777 yards receiving were a far cry from the 113 and 1,346 he compiled in 2013 when he was a much bigger part of the team’s gameplan.

As Washington aims to take the next step and repeat as NFC East Champions after a surprise run to the title in 2015, it’s worth wondering how they’ll utilize their receiving corps this season. There would seem to be room for Doctson, Garcon and Jackson, especially if Jackson is healthy and can work in the slot, but the team also has Jamison Crowder there, a player they like quite a bit. With Garcon and Jackson both in the final year of their deals, and taking up roster and salary cap space that could be allocated elsewhere, it’s not hard to see one of them being shown the door this summer.

Those are just a few of the battles shaping up around the league, with dozens more in play as training camp gets set to begin. It should all make for a fun summer around the league.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys